CONCERNS have been raised about unregulated access to drones that can carry high powered surveillance equipment and be used by animal rights activists to expose loopholes in farmers’ private property rights.
Several farm-based submissions to the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee’s inquiry into regulatory requirements underpinning drones - or remotely piloted or unmanned aircraft systems - have called for more support to protect farmers including from extreme political attacks, by animal liberationists.
Committee Deputy Chair and Queensland Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan has also called on the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to immediately enforce training and licensing requirements for all recreational and small commercial drone operators while the ongoing Senate inquiry completes its list of recommendations.
Senator O’Sullivan said if CASA failed to act on introducing training and licensing requirements it may be necessary to temporarily remove all recreational drones from sale across Australian retail outlets.
He said he was concerned that animal rights extremists could exploit loopholes in the current drone use regulatory regime, pointing out the potential dangers to livestock farmers in politically-motivated attacks.
“We know that animal activist groups are able to purchase a recreational drone off the shelf at an electronics shop and put it into the air to hover around a farmer’s property to spy on any landholder,” he said.
“Not only is this a blatant invasion of the privacy of landholders across the nation, but it is also a form of vigilantism that should not be tolerated in a civil society.
“This basically treats landholders as criminals who cannot be trusted to run their operations in an ethical manner.”
Senator O’Sullivan said he was uncomfortable with the idea of thousands of so-called recreational drones flying around the nation’s airspace without appropriate training, licensing and registration with CASA, “especially when we know some of these drones are being used to harass farmers and push an extreme political agenda”.
Senator O’Sullivan said drones had the potential to be a serious “game changer” in rural industries - but the right balance needed to the sought.
“One of my primary reasons for establishing this inquiry was to allow us to conduct a serious examination that strikes the right balance between ensuring people with questionable motivations for operating these drones are made aware of their responsibilities and are appropriately registered with CASA while also ensuring this technology continues to assist our rural industry,” he said.
The Senate inquiry is due to report in December 2017 and its terms of reference include examining state and local government regulations and the overseas experience of drone use.
It’s also looking at issues with public safety and privacy and the potential recreational and commercial uses of drones, including in agriculture with submissions raising issues around the technology’s potential use in farm chemical applications.
Senator O’Sullivan said while the Senate inquiry continued, all recreational and small commercial operators employing drones under 2 kilograms should be immediately required to complete the same training and licensing arrangements as bigger commercial operators or those over 2kgs.
He said there was a strong need for all regulations and requirements placed on recreational and small commercial drone operators to be given careful consideration.
“I must stress this is a personal view and I do not want to anticipate the final recommendations of the senate inquiry,” he said.
“However, you can currently purchase these machines in an electronics shop for a few hundred dollars and we have a regulatory environment in place where drone operators who claim to be using these machines for recreational purposes are not regulated by CASA.
“I have serious concerns about the impacts to public safety from having potentially thousands of unregulated and unlicensed drone operators in our air space.
“While it is correct that there are specific rules that prevent these drone operators from flying at night or flying any higher than 120 metres in the air in built up areas, there is currently no requirement placed on these smaller operators to become schooled in the relevant rules.
“Each of these drones are generally equipped with video cameras and some are capable of carrying payloads of equipment through the skies, yet we don’t know how many are in our skies or who is operating them.
“They threaten secure airspace, public safety and privacy - that should be a concern for every Australian.”
The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) and other groups like Australian Pork Limited (APL) have also made inquiry submissions calling for regulatory action regarding drone use over farms; including by animal rights activists.
APL Policy General Manager Deb Kerr said Australia’s $2.8 billion pork industry had about 1500 producers producing around five million pigs for slaughter annually and needed protection from “perverse privacy invasion” by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).
Ms Kerr said UAVs were becoming increasingly applied to agricultural operations - but there was an interest and increasing use of the technology by animal activists for surveillance of animal agriculture.
She said the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs 2014 report, “Eyes in the Sky”, identified a number of gaps in current surveillance laws and made recommendations to modernise and harmonise this legislation in Australia.
But unfortunately, many of these recommendations are yet to be actioned and this posed a great risk to Australian animal agriculture industries, she said.
APL suggested CASA work with the Australian Privacy Commissioner to review current legislation to ensure there was adequate protection against emerging technologies, such as UAVs, which could be used for perverse privacy invasion.
“Additionally, APL would suggest surveillance laws contain technology neutral definitions given the range of surveillance devices and emergence of new devices, such as UAVs fitted with listening devices or advanced optical surveillance devices and may not be covered in current definitions for surveillance devices,” Ms Kerr said.
In his group’s submission to the Senate inquiry, NFF Rural Affairs Manager Mark Harvey-Sutton said a system for drone use that allowed farmers to increase productivity on farm while maximising safety was strongly supported.
He said transformative technologies like drones had the capacity to change the way food and fibre was produced and can provide farmers with valuable data to better monitor conditions on farm.
“These sophisticated tools will enable farmers to manage ever larger areas of land and assist them with decision-making,” he said.
“It is to be expected that digital technologies can improve risk management approaches on farm, predicting weather and yields with greater accuracy.
“Drones could, potentially, be used to assist farmers in monitoring fencing or to spray plants. In turn, farmers will spend less time driving through paddocks as they will be able to manage larger areas of land by analysing data.”
But Mr Harvey-Sutton said the NFF was concerned about the use of drones by trespassers, flying over rural properties without the permission of farmers.
“The NFF suggests to design a safe and efficient system to monitor drone movements and to ensure the privacy and safety of rural landholders,” he said.
“It is vital that drones are appropriately controlled and that farmers do not need to fear the entry of unwanted drones on their property.
“Technological solutions such as geo-fencing could prevent trespassing on farm, protecting people, stock and wildlife on properties.
“The NFF recommends that a communication campaign be developed to inform the agricultural sector of safety considerations, public liability concerns and insurance requirements relating to drone use for primary production activities.”
The Victorian Farmers Federation’s inquiry submission said further consideration should be given to the regulatory mechanisms necessary for ensuring the establishment of regulatory controls around drone use, to maintain farm security, protect privacy and prevent unauthorised surveillance, within an agricultural context.
VFF said the Victorian Surveillance Devices Act failed to adequately protect agricultural business from unauthorised surveillance as regulatory stipulations only prohibits the use of drones and associated systems in recording private conversations or activities within the confines of a private residence.
However, taking video footage, without recording audio, within an open space on private property, such as a backyard or farm property, does not contravene the Act, the submission said.
“The lack of clear regulatory guidelines is a significant risk to agricultural businesses, specifically leaving small agricultural businesses open to unauthorised surveillance without the support of regulatory mechanisms,” it said.
NSWFarmers said farm innovation aside, the question its members constantly raised about the use of drones was that of privacy and security as they can be used for criminal activity and surveillance.
“Our members are constantly asking us what they can do when an unwanted (drone) enters their property or attempts to surveil their business,” the submission said.
“Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to police such activity.
“If this Senate inquiry achieves anything, it should address the difficulty of regulating such ‘disruptive’ technology to protect the public in their homes and on their farms.”
Senator O’Sullivan said the Senate Committee had heard from witnesses ranging from universities to pizza delivery companies and all had strong views that the nation’s skies will one day look like a scene from “The Jetsons” cartoon.
“It’s important we build a regulatory environment that acknowledges the serious technological changes taking place and the likely congestion, and potential public safety hazard, it is going to cause in the air space above us,” he said.